Sunday, 17 February 2013


I know I have said this before, but it cannot be said too often. The miracle is repeated every year. The first day of gardening, mostly inspection, but some tidying, some weeding, some trimming. I say: "Hello, mate" to a bluebell that has come in the same spot as last year. I say: "And where did you come from? Welcome!" to a couple of snowdrops I have not seen before. I say: "Come on!" to daffodils that will bloom any day. I state that the new roses have survived the frosty nights. I see that the day lilies I replanted in the autumn are coming out. I see that the d-d deer have not eaten all tulips. The lilacs and the blackcurrants have large buds. The clematis has first tiny shoots. The bamboo is now higher than myself. My battle with ivy and brambles will go on.

Everything is as it should be. 

Friday, 15 February 2013


As usual, I am inspired by my daughter's blog. Young as she is, she cannot think more than five years back and three years into the future. I can take a quick glance fifty years back and state that I was finishing primary school and discovering that everybody in the world was in love and if I didn't fall in love soon life wouldn't be worth living.

However, I'll keep to Julia's pattern.

Five years ago I had just applied for a Chair in Cambridge and was apprehensive at the thought of approaching interviews. I had just been diagnosed with something that explained my life neatly to me and wondered whether it would have made any difference if I had known it all along.

Three years ago... goodness, I have no idea. It was my second year in Cambridge, I was still seriously lacking in confidence and kept silent in meeting. The students who were doing their masters are now finishing their PhDs. About this time I went to Finland and Sweden for guest lectures, a conference and a doctoral defence. I also did a keynote talk at a conference in Norway. I was working on a book that I am still working on.

A year ago I was full of energy, having won some battles at work. I was busy with PhD admissions. I was preparing a talk for a conference in Germany. I was also looking forward to my 60th birthday.

Yesterday I was as frustrated as an academic can be.

Tomorrow I will work on my book in the morning and then dig in the garden, weather permitting.

Next year this time I hope that the book will be published. I may have started on a new project, but have no idea what it could be. There will be a new bunch of masters and hopefully a few new PhD students. Kory will have settled in Sweden and hopefully have a job. Our oldest grandchild will be almost eighteen.

In five years I will be finishing my work at Cambridge and planning my retirement. I will not be taking on any new PhD students. I will hopefully have a bunch of younger colleagues who will take over research and teaching of children's literature in Cambridge. My present PhD students will be internationally recognised scholars. The book I am writing at the moment will be the standard work in the area. We will have some more grandchildren and a couple of great-grandchildren. The little olive tree in front of my window will be large.

Conversely, beginning from tomorrow onward, I may be dead. (In fact, I may be dead within the next hour, but that's far too optimistic).

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Virtually Russian

A couple of years ago I carelessly promised to go to Moscow for a guest lecture. It's a bad habit I must get rid of: when people invite me to come and do a guest lecture, I feel flattered and say: I'll be delighted, instead of: Sorry, I truly cannot. Apart from painful travel, I have a complicated relationship to my birthplace, but at some point going to Moscow to do a guest lecture and then see all Rabbit's friends and relations felt attractive. It got less and less attractive as the date approached, and since I was then - as always - desperately cancelling all previously arranged travel I took a deep breath and emailed my Russian colleague to give my apology. By that time, another colleague in Germany had suggested that I do a virtual lecture if I couldn't come in person, and I suggested to my Russian colleague that I do a virtual lecture for them, secretly hoping that it would turn out impossible. However, she was delighted, and the date went on approaching. Actually, it was brought forward by two months, so suddenly last week I realised that I was going to give a virtual lecture in my mothertongue which I hadn't spoken academically for decades. (I used to go to Russia and lecture a lot, but not for a long while now. I always liked it. It took me to exotic places such as Murmansk).

I insisted on a technical test in advance because there are thousands of things that can go wrong. I had a test for my German lecture, and it worked fine, and then it didn't at the actual lecture. At least, not at once.

The test went fine, but I did it from home, while I wanted to do the lecture from the office where I was sure that my end worked as it should. I asked to have a final test half an hour before the lecture. When I opened my Skype this morning the Russian contact was not there, and I didn't quite remember their Skype name. I tried this and that, which didn't work, and then I hoped they would send a contact request, and they didn't, and I emailed them, and I tried some more Skype names, and finally one was correct. Perfect. Close encounters of fourth grade. Well, I said, see you in fifteen minutes. My Russian colleague wriggled and said, could we possibly start five minutes past so that the audience got in. I had no problems with that and looked through my notes. They called five past to ask whether we could make it ten past since there were more people coming in. Finally a quarter past we started, and I forgot my notes and made some jokes (which is weird in a virtual classroom since I couldn't see the audience's reaction). Halfway through, the connection broke. My contact went offline, and there wasn't much I could do about it. I got an emal saying: Sorry, we are fixing it, which I had already figured out. Then it worked again, and I had to ask them what the last thing they had heard me say was. I had a big alarm clock in front of me, but because of the delayed start and the interruption I allowed myself to go over a bit. Then there were questions and comments, all very clever and helpful, and I had forgotten that I had spoken a language I wasn't comfortable with. I enjoyed it. I want to do it again.

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Questions about reading

It has been a while since I responded to my daughter's blog. (Time to have another blog marathon, Julia!). She pinched the questions from somebody else's blog, so I pinch it further.

1.  Audiobook or printed book?
Printed book. I have almost never listened to an audiobook because I cannot stand somebody else's voice reading for me (except for my husband - he is an excellent reader).

2. Pocket or hardback?
Pocket! I hate hardback books, they are so heavy to read in bed. Unless I have no choice, I always wait until a book is available in pocket. There is also a cultural reason: in my youth, Western pocket books had high status. 

3. Fiction or nonfiction?
I assume that the question is about leisure reading. I read tons of nonfiction for work, but for leisure I mostly read fiction. That said, I have recently read popular science about plants, teenagers, cancer cells, English mentality and other exciting subjects.

4. Harry Potter or Twilight?
That was a silly question.

5. Fantasy or reality?
What is reality?

6. Kindle, iPad or something else? 
Mostly Kindle, but if I travel and carry my paddy for work I read on it as well, not to have too many devices to think about.

7. Borrow or buy?
Buy. If I really want to read a book I probably want to own it. Again, we are not talking work, for I borrow work-related books from my library, although I buy books for work if I know I will use them again and again. I also borrow books from friends.

8. Bookstore or online?
I like to browse bookstores because then you find books you didn't know you wanted. I like conference bookstores. But if I want a particular book I will order it online.And if it is available as ebook I can start reading it at once.

9. Single book or trilogy?
I prefer single books. I like to see a plot rounded up within a single book. Sequels are rarely as good as the first book. In some of the most popular multivolume fiction right now I have only read the first and have no desire to read more. I have read all seven Harry Potter books, because I had to for work, but they just kept getting worse.

10. Long book or short book?
I like long and slow novels, but sometimes a short book can be brilliant because of being short. I hate unjustifiably long books

11. Romance or action?

12. Cuddle in bed or bask in the sun?
I used to read a lot on the beach. Nowadays I don't go to beaches so often, and when I do, I watch the waves. Cuddle in bed is best for reading.

13. Hot chocolate or latte?
To accompany reading?? In bed? Never.

14. Read reviews or make up your own mind?
This is an interesting one. If I see a book review that even remotedly interests me, the first thing I do is look who wrote it. Some reviewers I know will praise books that I will hate and the other way round. Some reviewers' opinion I value. I am always grateful for colleagues' and students' advice. But I would never like a book, or say I like a book, merely because everyone is saying it's great, and I would be prepared to defend a book nobody likes if I do.

I can think of some other good questions about reading, but it will have to be some other time.

Friday, 1 February 2013

If you want a thing done, do it yourself

Some of my books and articles are translated into a variety of languages: Danish, Norwegain, Finnish, German, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Lithuanian, Slovenian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Farsi. I may have forgotten some.

I have translated myself from English to Swedish and back. It is not really translating because it is my own text, and I know what I want to say and can say it slightly differently in the other language.

With Danish and Norwegian, I can check that the translation is correct. With other languages I can at least ask how they have managed some things that can be problematic in translation. Most translators are grateful if the author is willing to help.

I have also translated myself into Russian. The problem with Russian is that it is not my working language, unlike Swedish and English. I used to do guest lectures in Russian, but not for a long while now. Still I typically prefer to translate myself for the reasons given above. As an author, I can allow myself liberties that a translator woudn't be comfortable with. Yet some time ago I was approached by a professional journal in Russia that wanted to translate one of my articles, and I didn't have time to do it myself so I said go ahead, but I want to see the translation. Well, yesterday they sent it. They had three minor quiries. I thought I'd read through it quickly, just to see that all my metadiegeses and crossfocalisations were in place. £&!^$%£"&%*;!!! It took me all day yesterday and all morning today to get it somewhat right. Surely it would have been quicker if I had translated it myself.

There are many things that can go wrong in a translation. Occasionally, a small error makes the meaning the opposite. All translators have done this. I have done this. Usually you yourself or the editor picks it up because something feels wrong and does not make sense. But if I say in my article that something is invaluable, and the translator says it's impossible, a very important argument goes profoundly wrong.

If a scholarly article uses, all the way through, a particular term, I would expect the translator to find out what it is called in the target language rather than use long and clumsy circumscriptions. It took me five seconds to find it on Russian Wikipedia.

However, I would be prepared to forgive this. It is actually easy to correct.

I am very proud of writing simple, comprehensible academic prose. My motto comes from Kurt Vonnegut: "A scholar who cannot explain to a five-year-old what he is doing is a charlatan". I frequently receive compliments for the clarity of my writing, and therefore I am not scared of writing about complicated subjects. If I can explain them clearly, I have understood them myself. Therefore I was thoroughly upset when I started reading the translation. If I for some reason picked up this article as it was published, I'd say: This author writes gibberish. I don't want to read gibberish. I cannot get through to what the author is trying to say.

Russian is a rich language with a huge vocabulary. A translator doesn't have to invent new words the meaning of which readers would not know. Russian is also a remarkably flexible language. It uses gerunds and participles where English uses embedded subordinate clauses, which allows for a variety of sentence structures. I used to assess translations into Russian for various publishing houses and grant-awarding bodies. My first check was always for gerunds. Russian also has free word order that can be used for rhythm and emphasis. My second assessment would therefore be for word order. Russian has instrumental case that comes handy. Translators who ignore these options produce bland, dull prose. Academic prose does not have to be bland. It has to be particularly enjoyable if it is to convey complex argument.

Shall I go on? Or do you believe me that I spent at least twelve hours editing twenty pages of horrendously bad academic writing? And mind, it's not like reading a student essay with deficient argument and poor structure. If you could only get through to them, the structure and the argument were perfect (the article had gone through a rigorous peer-review procedure and a fierce editor before it was published).

You may ask why I did it. It isn't a prestigious publication. I could have asked them to go to Hampshire and Hereford where hurricans hardly happen. But it is a matter of honour. My name is on it, and I am proud of being able to write simply about difficult subjects... see above. If there is a handful of colleagues in Russia who might be interested in my work, I don't want to scare them off with slovenly language.